Tag Archives: 2013 Reviews

Child’s guide to war: A film troika

By Dennis Hartley

(I originally posted this over at Hullabaloo on September 14, 2013. I’m re-posting it with no revisions, because sadly, it’s relevant once more.)

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Have you heard the reasons why?

(Yeah, we’ve heard it all before)

But have you seen the nation cry?

(Yeah, we’ve seen it all before)

-From “War Weary World” by The Call

 (*sigh*) So the boys are rattling their sabers yet again, and America girds its collective loins for possible involvement in Syraqistan or wherever (different day, same old shit). So far, it’s a war of words, and I sincerely hope it stays that way (sticks and stones, and all that). Most disturbing to me about this whole affair is how that endlessly-looped footage of gassed children is being used as a war mongering tool by our own government and an ever-compliant MSM. Yes, it’s horrible beyond words and a reprehensible act by any standards, but I seem to recall a brief and shining moment in this country when such imagery was processed as deterrence to conflict and a call for diplomacy, rather than a base and puerile incitement for vengeance (are American bombs any more discriminate?).

But perhaps I’m the one being childish, what with my naive pacifist wishes and hippy-dippy poster dreams. It’s a complicated world, and I’m just a simple farmer. A person of the land. The common clay of the American West. You know…a moron. That’s why I’m just the movie guy around these parts. That being said, I believe there’s something that the following movies, or more specifically their young protagonists can teach us about such matters. And so I’m spotlighting three essential films that offer an immediate ground-level view of the effects of war, filtered through the eyes of innocents, uncluttered by any political machinations or jingoist agendas. Hey, feel free to invite your favorite war hawk over for dinner and a movie. Just make sure that they are taking notes:

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Grave of the Fireflies– For many years, the term ‘anime’ conjured up visions of saucer-eyed cartoon characters in colorful, action-packed fantasy-adventures (generally targeting younger audiences). However, sometime around the mid-80s, the paradigm shifted when Japanese production houses like Studio Ghibli began to find international success with more eclectic, character-driven fare. One particularly transcendent example is writer-director Isao Takahata’s 1988 drama, Grave of the Fireflies.

While it is animated, and its protagonists are children, it is not necessarily a children’s film; its unflinching approach and anti-war subtext puts it in a league with Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. The story (based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel) takes place in Kobe in 1945, and concerns the travails of a teenage boy named Seita (voiced by Tsutomo Tatsumi) and his little sister Setsuko (voiced by Ayano Shiraishi), who are orphaned when their mother perishes during an Allied firebombing raid.

After brief lodgings with a less-than-hospitable aunt, the siblings have to fend for themselves. Do not expect a Hollywood ending (I wouldn’t recommend  it for children under 12). One commonality between Grave of the Fireflies and the aforementioned Rossellini film worth consideration is that Japan and Germany were the aggressor nations in WW2. An obvious commonality, but precisely my point: The pain and suffering of innocents caught in the crossfire doesn’t know from borders or ideology.

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Son of Babylon– This heartbreaking Iraqi drama is set in 2003, just weeks after the fall of Saddam. It follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they head for the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War. As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert, a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji and co-screenwriter Jennifer Norridge deliver something conspicuously absent in the Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who inevitably get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. While the film alludes to the regional and international politics involved, the narrative is constructed in such a way that at the end of day, whether Ahmed’s father was killed by American bomb sorties or Saddam gassing his own people is moot.

That message is distilled in a small, compassionate gesture and a single line of dialogue. An Arabic-speaking woman, also searching for a missing loved one at a mass grave site sets her own suffering aside to lay a comforting hand on the lamenting grandmother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish,” she says, “…but I can feel this woman’s pain and sadness.” One thing I can say (aside that this emotionally shattering film should be required viewing for heads of state, commanders-in-chief, generals, or anyone else wielding the power to wage war)…I don’t speak Kurdish, either.

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Testament– Originally a PBS American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander (she lost to Shirley MacLaine). Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberately paced approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where the afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that a number of nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a whole different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; a wise decision by the filmmakers because it helps us zero in on the essential humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amid such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it all so frighteningly believable and difficult to shake off. As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film…“Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

Stop the world, I want to get off: Elysium *** & Europa Report **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 10, 2013)

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It’s tempting to take the political allegory in Neill Blomkamp’s new sci-fi action adventure Elysium and run with it. But I am going to take the high road. I’m not going to shoot you a Palin-esque wink as I tell you the year is 2154, and the human race is reduced to two classes: the super-rich, who have ensconced themselves in a glorified gated community called Elysium (a gargantuan bio-domed space station in Earth’s orbit) and the rest of humanity, who have been ghettoized back on Earth, which has fallen into ecological and economic ruin.

The Earth rabble try to infiltrate the 1 per-centers’ big wheel in the sky via “illegal” shuttle crafts,  but those lucky enough make it past Elysium’s formidable Star Wars missile defense system and land are captured by police droids and deported back to Earth (note I’m still keeping a straight face). Screw it. I reveled in the political allegory.

I especially reveled in Jodie Foster’s turn as Elysium’s icy Secretary Delacourt, who usurps the President’s ineffectual requests to take it down a notch on these strident Homeland Security measures (and if she didn’t base her characterization on Governor Jan Brewer, then Stephen Colbert actually is a conservative pundit).

Meanwhile, back in the States, we meet Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con who works at a dreary droid manufacturing plant in L.A. The Los Angeles of 2154 resembles a giant favela (it makes the Blade Runner rendition of the City of Angels seem Utopian). Nearly everyone speaks Spanish (now…settle). Those lucky enough to have a job are mercilessly exploited by their employers (I said: settle!). While there are hospitals, they are understaffed and ill-equipped to treat catastrophic illnesses; whereas on Elysium, every mansion come equipped with a miracle medical appliance that seems to cure everything from paper cuts to cancer via cellular regeneration.

All of these mitigating factors are about to converge into a perfect shit storm for our protagonist. A work accident exposes Max to a lethal amount of radiation. He’s told he has 5 days to live and given a bottle of painkillers. His only chance for a cure is on Elysium.

Desperate, he reaches out to an old acquaintance (Wagner Moura), now a successful smuggler, to see if he can arrange passage. As Max is somewhat short on funds, the smuggler offers a trade deal. If Max does a special “job” for him, he’ll get him on a shuttle. Max agrees, but the gig goes south, and he’s on the run from an odious mercenary (Sharlto Copley) who does covert operations for Secretary Delacourt.

What ensues is a mashup of Escape from New York with Seven Days in May (granted, Max is no Snake Plissken, but he’s in the same ball park). As he did in his 2009 feature film debut District 9, Blomkamp deftly delivers a strong political message and slam-bang sci-fi action entertainment all in one package. While Damon is unquestionably the star, I think Copley (who seems to be establishing a Scorcese-De Niro/Herzog-Kinski type partnership with the director) nearly steals the movie with his deliriously over-the-top performance (his character is the best scene-stealing sci-fi heavy since Dennis Hopper and his eye patch played to the back of the house in Waterworld).

Oh, by the way…the best part about this film is that the real show hasn’t even started yet. There is an unmistakable, marvelously unapologetic pro-Obamacare message in the denouement that is surely going to leave the “Aha! It’s another piece of Hollywood lefty socialist propaganda!” crowd apoplectic and sputtering with impotent rage. They are going to go absolutely spare (if they haven’t gone so already). Personally, I can’t wait. Pass the popcorn…

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Film makers who aim to create “realistic” sci-fi dramas are faced with a conundrum: While it may be true that “It’s not about  ‘destination’,  but rather the journey”, an inconvenient truth remains…real life space journeys are tedious (Apollo 13 aside). Even our nearest interstellar travel destination (the Moon) takes 4 days (I don’t know about you, but I get antsy after 4 hours on a plane). So if you want to do a realistic film about a Jupiter mission, how do you add drama? OK, Kubrick  did it  in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that set a high bar.

To their credit, for about two-thirds of their hyper-realistic sci-fi drama Europa Report, director Sebastian Cordero and screenwriter Philip Gelatt seem headed for that bar. Framing the narrative with the “found footage” gimmick, the film is a faux-documentary that “reconstructs” a privately-funded mission to Jupiter’s moon of Europa to probe for signs of aquatic alien life beneath its ice pack. The six crew members have each been chosen for expertise in their respective fields. Shipboard footage capturing the workaday mission minutiae is interspersed with somber “present day” interviews telegraphing that it all ends in tears (don’t worry…not a spoiler).

Most of the filmmaker’s effort focuses on making us believe that this is all really happening, and indeed the overall “look” is right. Special effects are seamless; all the hardware, the radio chatter, EVA procedures etc. etc. suitably authentic and convincing, but there’s one thing missing…an interesting story. There’s simply no “there” there, and the sudden 180 into The Blair Witch Project territory in the third act cheapens the film and destroys all credibility.

The cast (which includes Michael Nykvist and the ubiquitous Sharlto Copley) do the best they can with woefully underwritten parts, but the resultant lack of emotional investment on my part as a viewer made it hard for me to care about what happened to whom once the mission (and the film itself) began to go horribly, horribly awry.

Hints and allegations: The Hunt ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Did you ever play “telephone” when you were a kid? Assuming that some readers were raised on texting, it is a party game/psychology 101 exercise in which one person whispers a message to another, moving  down the line until it reaches the last player, who then repeats it loud enough for all to hear. More often than not, the original context gets lost in translation once it runs through the gauntlet of misinterpretations, preconceptions and assumptions that generally fall under the umbrella of “human nature”.

The Hunt is a shattering drama from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (co-written by Tobias Lindholm) that vividly demonstrates the singularly destructive power of “assumption”. When we first meet bespectacled, mild-mannered kindergarten teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), he is just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel following a difficult and emotionally draining divorce. Well-liked by his students and fellow teachers and bolstered by the support of long-time friends like Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) Lucas is picking up the pieces and embarking on a fresh start. He lives and works in a small, tightly-knit community, where few residents would be considered “strangers”

One day at school, some of Lucas’ students decide to “dog pile” their teacher. Watching from the wings is Theo’s daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), a withdrawn but sweet little girl who knows Lucas not only as a teacher, but as a family friend. She joins the giggly pile of kids and kisses Lucas, full on the lips. He immediately takes Klara aside and gently admonishes her, explaining that it is inappropriate for her to kiss any adult on the lips (other than Mom and Dad). But 5 year old Klara is only puzzled and hurt by what she simply perceives as rejection. A while later, the school principal (Susse Wold) spots a tearful Klara. She asks her what is wrong. Klara’s answer is a sulking child’s innocent lie, but it ignites a real life game of “telephone” that is about to turn a man’s life upside down.

Mikkelsen’s performance as a man struggling to keep his head above water whilst being inexorably pulled into a maelstrom of Kafkaesque travails is nothing short of astonishing. The film is a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of mob mentality, at times recalling Fritz Lang’s Fury. There are also flashes of Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal, particularly in the protagonist’s dogged refusal to dignify the accusations by neither denying guilt nor going out of his way to profess his innocence. Interestingly, the film dredges up memories of the real life day-care sex abuse hysteria (perhaps best personified by the high-profile McMartin preschool trial) that seemed to dominate the media throughout the 1990s (remember all the ballyhoo over “Satanic rituals” and the “false memories” phenomenon? Good times). The Hunt is powerful, intense and unsettling, yet essential. And that’s no lie.

I saw Polly in a porny: Lovelace **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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In their engrossing 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, co-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato examined (with the benefit of 30+ years of hindsight) the surprisingly profound socio-political impact of the first (and arguably only) “adult film” to become a true mainstream cultural phenomenon. The most compelling element of the documentary was the personal journey of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, who was paid  $1250 for her starring role in the no-budget 1972 porno (said to have been made for about $50,000) that has since raked in an estimated $600 million in profit.

In 1980, Lovelace wrote an autobiography called Ordeal, in which she alleged that she had essentially been bullied into her career as a porno actress by her then-husband Chuck Traynor (who later married Marilyn Chambers). She claimed that Traynor not only physically and sexually abused her throughout their marriage, but pimped her out; even forcing her to perform some of her movie scenes at gunpoint. After publishing the book and settling down in suburbia to start a family with her new husband, Lovelace became an anti-porn activist for a spell, finding herself feted by the likes of Gloria Steinem (she famously stated on the Phil Donahue show that “Whenever someone sees that film, they’re watching me being raped.”). However, in the years just prior to her 2002 death in a car accident, she had begun to cash in once again on her porn legacy, causing some to question her credibility. According to one interviewee in Baily and Barbato’s film, she was a person who “always needed someone to tell her what to do.” So was she a real-life Citizen Ruth, willing to be used as anyone’s cause celebre?

Now that might have been an interesting angle for a filmmaker to expand upon…but unfortunately, it is but one of many missed opportunities in the disappointingly rote biopic Lovelace, the latest by another directing tag team, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Epstein and Friedman pick up Linda’s story just before Chuck Traynor enters her life. Linda (Amanda Seyfried) is living with her parents (Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick) in Florida. At first, Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) manages to exude charm (although Linda’s parents find his job as manager of a restaurant/exotic dance club a bit dubious) but he soon sweeps her off her feet, giving her a ring and whisking her off to New York.

Chuck introduces Linda to his mobbed-up pals (Chris Noth and Bobby Cannavale) who are always on the lookout for new “talent”. Chuck offers them a home movie that showcases a unique skill that he has “taught” Linda to perform. The obviously impressed hoods get Linda an audition with an adult film director named Gerry Damiano (Hank Azaria in the film’s most spirited performance), and the rest, as they say, is History (as tame reenactments of the making of Deep Throat ensue).

This takes up approximately half of the running time. Then, the filmmakers take a 180. Jumping ahead 6 years, we see Linda taking (and passing) a lie detector test regarding the claims of abuse that she had recounted in the 1980 autobiography. The story then abruptly jumps back to just after Chuck and Linda get married and move to New York, flashing forward over key events we have already seen…except this time, they insert the scenes of abuse that were purposely omitted for the first half of the film. While I understand the intention of this faux-Rashomon conceit, it’s clumsily executed and stalls the film out (making it feel much longer than its relatively short 92 minutes).

This is a surprisingly weak entry from a talented duo whose combined credits include the outstanding documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein solo), Where Are We? Our Trip Through America and The Celluloid Closet (co-directors). Perhaps the problem is that by limiting their narrative to Lovelace’s version of events, the filmmakers box themselves in, leaving little room for fresh insights or perspectives. Or perhaps since this is only their second non-documentary effort, they’re still unsure what to do with newfound creative license. So I would recommend you skip this melodrama and opt for the aforementioned  documentary.

In her own write: Hannah Arendt ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 20, 2013)

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A comic I worked with a few times during my stand-up days (whose name escapes me) used to do a parody song (to the tune of Dion’s “The Wanderer”) that was not only funny, but a clever bit of meta regarding the very process of coming up with “funny”. It began with “Ohh…I’m the type of guy, who likes to sit around,” (that’s all I remember of the verse) and the chorus went: “Cuz I’m the ponderer, yeeah…I’m the ponderer, I sit around around around around…” Still makes me chuckle thinking about it. And it’s so true. Writers do spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around and thinking about writing. To the casual observer it may appear he or she is just sitting there staring into space, but at any given moment (and you’ll have to trust me on this one) their senses are working overtime.

There’s lots of staring into space in Hannah Arendt, a new biopic from Margarethe von Trotta. The film focuses on a specific period in the life of the eponymous character (played by Barbara Sukowa, in her third collaboration with the prolific German director), when the political theorist/philosopher wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker magazine (eventually spawning a book) covering the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. If that doesn’t sound to you like the impetus for a slam-bang action thriller, you would be correct; even if the film does in fact open with a bit of (murky) action. A man has his leisurely nighttime stroll rudely interrupted by a team of abductors, who unceremoniously toss him into the back of a truck and spirit him away (in 1960, Eichmann was nabbed in Argentina and smuggled to Israel by the Mossad to stand trial).

The remainder of the film more or less concerns itself with the personal and professional fallout suffered by Arendt (a German Jew who fled from France to New York in 1941 with her husband and mother) after she eschews the expected boilerplate courtroom reportage for an incendiary treatise redefining the nature of evil in a post-Nazi world. It was in this magazine piece that Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil”, which has become part of the lexicon (god knows I’ve co-opted it once or twice in my own writing). While it doesn’t seem like such a big deal now, this was a provocative (and subsequently controversial) concept for its time.

Most fascinating to Hannah (and us, as we watch interpolated archival footage from the trial) was Eichmann’s  ho-hum businesslike demeanor as he recounted sending thousands to the gas chambers; just another bureaucrat punching a clock and filing in triplicate (remember Michael Palin as the torturer in Brazil, casually removing a blood-spattered smock to affably play with his little girl, who has been patiently waiting in Daddy’s office while he’s “working”?).

Sukowa gives a compelling performance as Hannah; particularly impressive considering how much of it is internalized (she’s so good that you can almost tell what she’s thinking). While a film largely comprised of intellectuals smoking like chimneys while engaging in heated debates over ethical and political questions is obviously doomed to a niche audience, its release turns out to be quite timely. A day or two after I saw the film, the “controversy” over the Rolling Stone Boston bomber cover was all over the media. I couldn’t help but immediately draw a parallel with the flak that Arendt received in 1960 because she dared suggest that Evil doesn’t necessarily wear horns and carry a pitchfork. There’s something about that simple fact what really pisses some people off. Go figure.

The electric Kool-Aid Turing test: Computer Chess ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 27, 2013)

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One of my guilty pleasures from the 1980s is an endearingly dated romantic comedy, Electric Dreams. It’s an age-old story…you know, the one where the nerdy protagonist buys himself one of those newfangled home computers and promptly shorts it out by spilling a drink on the keyboard, which unexpectedly transmogrifies the unit into an ersatz HAL-9000, which then becomes his rival for the affections of the cute upstairs neighbor babe (oh, how many times have we heard that one?). If you’re like me (isn’t everyone?), and would like to believe “that totally could happen” you have the perfect mindset for Andrew Bujalski’s off-kilter 80s retro-style mockumentary, Computer Chess.

Conjuring verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it seem as if you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), Bujalski “documents” a weekend-long tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess.

Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski mixes up a bevy of idiosyncratic characters, like the boorish independent programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who wanders the hotel halls at night like a Flying Dutchman, knocking on random doors to see if anyone would let him crash on their floor. He seems particularly fixated on getting into the room occupied by shy Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the only female programmer (about whom the conference chairman gushes to the crowd: “M.I.T. has a lady on their team this year!”). Shelly wisely spurns his creepy advances, preferring to hang with kindred spirit Peter (Patrick Reister), who works for a rival team headed by the enigmatic Professor Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann).

It’s a particularly busy weekend at the hotel; they are also hosting a couples retreat, led by “a real African” therapist, who puts his clients through some classic New Age exercises (further accentuating the vibe of 80s nostalgia). In one of the film’s most amusing scenes, the ever-wandering Papageorge gets roped into a “rebirthing” session (“He’s crowning! He’s crowning!” ecstatic group members joyously exclaim as they “deliver” the spiritually reconstituted Papageorge, who later gloats to himself about getting his “catharsis for free”).

Another highlight borne of this oil and water mix: The painfully shy (and, we assume, virginal) Peter nearly gets sweet-talked into a ménage a trois with one of the couples after the wife gently admonishes him to metaphorically break free of the chessboard’s 64 squares and open himself to Life’s infinite possibilities.

However, just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things really start to get weird. And then they get even weirder. In fact, the final third (and Bujalski’s overall deadpan sensibility) stirred up memories of Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 cult curio, Liquid Sky.

While this marks the director’s fourth effort, it’s only the second Bujalski film I have seen other than his 2002 debut, Funny Ha Ha, a hit and miss affair which holds the dubious distinction as the prototype for the “mumblecore” genre (I remember when it was called “actors with bad elocution”). So based on the two I have seen, this is my favorite. I could watch it again; there’s a lot more going on than first meets the eye (pay close attention to the Blade Runner-inspired final shot!). There’s nothing else quite like it in theaters right now.

The happy executioner: The Act of Killing ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 3, 2013)

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“At first, we beat them to death… [but] there was too much blood…to avoid the blood, I [devised] this system,” explains former Indonesian government death squad leader Anwar Congo, the “star” of Joshua Oppenheimer’s audacious documentary The Act of Killing, and then helpfully offers an instructive (and macabre) demonstration of his patented garroting method (with the assistance of a stick, some metal wire, and a giggly “victim”).

Then, the eupeptic Congo breaks into an impromptu cha-cha dance.

This is but one of many surreal moments in Oppenheimer’s film (exec produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog). Congo is a self-described “gangster” who claims to have personally snuffed out 1,000 lives during the state-sanctioned liquidation of an estimated 1,000,000 “communists” that followed in the wake of the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government. As a series of like-minded regimes have maintained power ever since, men like Congo and “co-star” Herman Koto (Congo’s compatriot and a paramilitary leader), who would be considered war criminals anywhere else, are feted as heroes by their government and worshiped like rock stars by paramilitary youth groups.

As it turns out, Congo and Koto were not only quite amenable to skipping down memory lane happily revisiting the scenes of their crimes, but offered to take things even one step further. In a pitch straight out of (the ever-prescient) Network, they generously offered to reenact their exploits by portraying themselves in a Hollywood-style gangster epic. Needless to say, this counter-intuitive mash-up of hard-hitting investigative journalism and ebullient “Hey, I have a barn, let’s put on a show!” participation from the very parties that the filmmaker aims to expose could be enough to make some viewer’s heads explode.

However, sandwiched between reality TV moments like watching the narcissistic Congo and Koto studiously dissecting their “dailies”, rehearsing torture scenes (for which they can no doubt double as their own special consultants) or recruiting palpably alarmed civilians to play doomed “communists”, Oppenheimer slowly exorcises the ugly truths behind their braggadocio. It goes without saying that there had to be some form of major systemic collusion going on to enable a state-sanctioned genocide of this magnitude.

For example, it turns out that Congo and Koto’s own killing spree was facilitated with help from an old pal named Ibrahim Sinik, a “successful newspaper publisher” who used to interrogate suspected communists in his newsroom. As Congo recalls, “When he had the information, he’d say ‘Guilty!’ and we’d take them away and kill them.” After all, as Sinik himself adds, “Why would I do such grunt work?! One wink from me and they’re dead!”

I know what you’re thinking: These men are morally reprehensible, untouchable and beyond redemption, so why indulge them this sick, self-aggrandizing movie star fantasy? (Picture the warm and fuzzy feeling you’d get if the next  Powerball winner turned out to be one of those 97 year-old former Nazi camp guards). What’s Oppenheimer’s point? Is he crazy? He’s crazy all right. Like a fox. Because something extraordinary happens to one of our “heroes” when  he insists on playing one of his own victims in an execution reenactment. Something clicks, triggering a hint of what we call “empathy”. As we know, that is the gateway drug to “conscience”.

The moment of epiphany is telegraphed by a semantic slip. Through most of the film, the victims are referred to as “communists”. But at this crucial moment, one of the killers calls them human beings. Those two words open the floodgates; and the crushing enormity of his own horrible deeds makes him physically ill. Oppenheimer’s unblinking camera lingers on this hunched-over, violently retching old man, now stripped of swaggering bravado and revealed to be no more than a wretched creature as pathetic and pitiable as Tolkien’s Gollum. Still beyond redemption, perhaps, but recognizably human.

Vampire weekend: Byzantium **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2013)

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Stop! Or my Mom will bite: Arterton and Ronan share quality time.

In my 2010 review of The Wolfman, I pondered why people continue to be so fascinated by human “monster” characters like vampires and werewolves in literature and film:

I suppose it’s something to do with those primal impulses that we all (well, most of us-thank the Goddess) keep safely locked in our  lizard brain. Both of these “monsters” are  predatory in nature, but with some significant differences. With vampires, it’s the psycho-sexual subtext; always on the hunt for someone to penetrate with those (Canines? Molars? I’m not a dentist). There is a certain amount of seduction (or foreplay, if you will) involved as well. But once consummated, it’s off to  the next victim (no rest for the anemic).

And there’s certainly no rest for world-weary single vampire mom Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her teenage vampire daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). In fact, both women at the center of Neil Jordan’s neo-gothic fantasy Byzantium are looking pretty bone-tired. You would too, if you were 200+ years old.

Having to pack up and move to a new town every few months can also be quite draining; Clara’s “job” as a streetwalker, while providing a handy conduit to lure her victims, is not the ideal career choice for anyone to wants to keep a low profile. Also not helping is Mom’s unreserved tendency to leave Grand Guignol crime scenes in her wake for the local constabulary to contemplate. In stark contrast, the more demure and contemplative Eleanor employs a relatively compassionate feeding method (be advised that it’s no less unpleasant to watch).

Eleanor’s sensitivity hints at a poetic soul; telegraphed from the opening scene where a discarded page from her private journal flutters from a high window and is picked up and read by a passing stranger. Eleanor’s wistful voice over assures us that she knows that we know that she realizes the havoc she and her mother have been wreaking for two centuries is evil and wrong. She yearns to tell someone her story; she’s a serial killer that wants to get caught.

Mother and daughter settle in to a new coastal town (the windswept Hastings locale lends itself well to the sense of melancholy and foreboding). Clara, ever the opportunist, finds a pushover-a lonely, kindly bachelor named Noel (Daniel Mays) who has inherited a run-down hotel called The Byzantium. Clara soon converts the vintage inn into a brothel (giving unsuspecting Noel a stay of execution). In the meantime, Eleanor’s ever growing compulsion to share her dark family secrets comes to the fore when she meets a young man (Caleb Landry Jones) and begins to fall in love.

The director, best-known for character-driven noirs (Angel, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game) and emotionally shattering dramas (The Butcher Boy, The End of the Affair) is actually no stranger to the supernatural, beginning with his 1984 sophomore effort (and one of my Jordan favorites) The Company of Wolves. He graduated from werewolves to vampires a decade later with one of his bigger box office successes, Interview with the Vampire (although critics were more divided). He even gave horror comedy a shot in his uncharacteristically limp 1988 offering High Spirits. And his 2009 drama Ondine weaved in a few elements from  Irish fairy tales.

Even discounting the fact that I am not particularly enamored with post-modern vampire flicks to begin with, Byzantium still left me feeling ambivalent. On the plus side, Jordan wrests compelling performances from his cast (consistently one of this strongest suits). Arterton exudes a volatile intensity and earthy sexiness that’s hard to ignore, and Ronan’s offbeat moon-faced loveliness and expressive, incandescent eyes give her tragic character an appropriately haunted, ethereal quality.

The problem, I think may be with Moira Buffini’s uneven script (adapted from her own play). While it remained focused on the mother-daughter dynamic, it held my attention. But whenever it veered into the somewhat incoherent backstory involving a cabal of male vampires who have been shadowing the women since the early 19th Century, they lost me. Then there’s the raging river o’ blood sequence (c’mon…how many times must we rip off The Shining?!) and the Bat Cave of Destiny (my name for it)…at any rate, it all becomes needlessly busy and muddled. Maybe I’m ol’skool, but just give me Bela Lugosi in a chintz cape, and I’ll bite.

A brush with destiny: The Painting **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2013)

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Do you remember that classic Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoon, “Duck Amuck”? It’s the one where an increasingly discombobulated Daffy Duck punches through the Fourth Wall, alternately berating, bargaining and pleading with his omniscient animator, who keeps altering Daffy’s “reality” with pencils, erasers, pens, ink, brushes and watercolors. It’s a delightfully surreal piece of Looney Tunes existentialism. A new feature-length animated film from France called The Painting (aka Le Tableau) takes a similar tact, albeit with less comic flair. Rather, writer-director Jean-Francois Laguionie and co-writer Anik Leray strive to deliver a gentle parable about racial tolerance meets “Art History 101”; easy to digest for kids 8 and up and adults from mildly buzzed to 420.

The story takes place in an unnamed kingdom that exists within an unfinished painting (don’t worry, not a spoiler) that is divided into a three-tiered caste system, ruled by the fully fleshed-out and colorful Alldunns. They look down on the Halfies, characters that The Painter hasn’t quite “filled in” all the way (Does God use an easel? Discuss.). Everybody looks down on the poor Sketchies, ephemeral charcoal line figures exiled to skulk about within the confines of a “forbidden” forest (you can already see where this is going, can’t you?). A Halfie named Claire falls in love with a Montague, oops, I mean, an Alldunn named Ramo. Roundly chastised for her forbidden passion, the despairing Claire runs away and disappears into the forest. Ramo and Claire’s best friend Lola set off in search.

After the three are reunited, they inadvertently stumble out of the frame into the artist’s studio, where they find a bevy of unfinished paintings. Surreal adventures ensue, as the trio explores the worlds that exist within each of the paintings, ultimately leading them to seek the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything by setting off on a quest to “meet their maker” so they can ask him “WTF?”

While the prevalent use of muted pastels lends the visuals a slightly warmer feel than most computer animation (of which I have never been a huge fan, mostly due to that “uncanny valley” vibe that frankly creeps me out) and several lovely sequences that make for pleasant eye candy, there was still something about the characters that left me a little cold. Another problem is that despite an intriguing premise, many elements of the narrative feel like an uninspired rehash of similar (and far more imaginative) “who made who?” fantasies like The Truman Show, Pleasantville and The Purple Rose of Cairo. And the “message” is about as subtle as the classic Star Trek  episode about a perpetual civil war between two factions of “halfie” black & white striped aliens who are reverse mirror images of each other. Still, the younger viewers may be more forgiving.

Blame it on the boogie: The Secret Disco Revolution **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2013)

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Remember the disco era? I try not to. Yeah, I was one of those long-haired rocker dudes walking around brandishing a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt and turning his nose up at anything that smelled of Bee Gee or polyester back in the day. What can I say? I was going through my tribal phase (I think it’s commonly referred to as “being in your early 20s”). Now, that being said, I sure loved me some hard funk back in the mid 70s. A bit of the Isley Brothers, War, Mandrill, Funkadelic, etc. oeuvre managed to infiltrate my record collection at the time (in betwixt the King Crimson, Bowie, Who and Budgie).

But I had to draw the battle lines somewhere around the release (and non-stop radio airplay) of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (ironically, I love the film itself). In retrospect, I think what offended my (oh so rarified) sense of music aesthetic was that while “disco” plundered R&B, funk, soul (and even elements of rock’n’roll) it somehow managed to expunge everything that was righteous and organic about those genres; codifying them into a robotic, repetitive, and formulaic wash. But hey, the kids could dance to it, right?

Now, I am extrapolating here about disco music itself, as one would reference “blues” or “jazz”; not “disco” as a cultural phenomenon or political movement. What did he say? “Political movement”?! Actually, I didn’t say. Director Jamie Kastner is the person who puts forth this proposition in his sketchy yet mildly engaging documentary (mockumentary?) The Secret Disco Revolution. I think he’s being serious when he posits that the disco phenomenon was not (as the conventional wisdom holds) simply an excuse for the Me Generation to boogie, snort and fuck themselves silly thru the latter half of the 70s, but a significant political milestone for women’s lib, gay lib and African American culture. He carries the revisionism a step further, suggesting that the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” riot (ignited by Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl’s 1979 publicity stunt, in which a crate of disco LPs was blown up at Comiskey Park in front of 50,000 cheering fans) was nothing less than a raging mob of racists, homophobes and misogynists. Hmm.

Kastner uses the aforementioned 1979 incident as the bookend to disco’s golden era (kind of like how writers and filmmakers have used Altamont as a metaphor for the death of 1960s hippie idealism). For the other end of his historic timeline, he (correctly) traces disco’s roots back to early 1970s gay club culture. How disco morphed from a relatively ghettoized urban hipster scene to arrhythmic middle-American suburbanites striking their best Travolta pose is actually the most fascinating aspect of the documentary; although I wish he’d gone a little more in depth on the history rather than digging so furiously for a sociopolitical subtext in a place where one barely ever existed.

Kastner mixes archival footage with present day ruminations from some of the key artists, producers and club owners who flourished during the era. The “mockumentary” aspect I mentioned earlier is in the form of three actors (suspiciously resembling the Mod Squad) who represent shadowy puppet masters who may have orchestrated this “revolution” (it’s clearly designed to be humorous but it’s a distracting device that quickly wears out its welcome).

So was disco a political statement? When Kastner poses the question to genre superstars like Thelma Houston, Gloria Gaynor and Evelyn King, they look at him like he just took a shit in the punch bowl. Hell, he can’t even get any of the guys from the Village People to acknowledge that their wild success represented a subversive incursion of gay culture into the mainstream (they’re likely toying with him because he’s belaboring the obvious…”The Village People were camp?! I’m shocked! Stop the presses!”).

Well, here’s how I look at it. Dion singing “Abraham, Martin and John”? That’s a political statement. James Brown singing “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud”? That’s a political statement. Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman”? Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be Gay”? Those are political statements. KC and the Sunshine Band singing “Get Down Tonight”? Not so much. And as for Kastner’s assertion that anyone who wore a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt back in the day (ahem) was obviously racist, homophobic and misogynistic, I would say this: I have never particularly cared for country music, either…so what does that make me in your book, Mr. Smarty Pants?